E-cigarettes on the rise, still unregulated
By PHIL CAUTHON
Kansas Health Institute
TOPEKA — Four years ago, when Rick Hasan first started selling electronic cigarettes, they seemed destined to be little more than a novelty, he said — the same as compact pipes and other smoking accessories available at his store.
"People were curious, but few kept buying. They would go back to the real cigarette. But now the e-cigarettes are taking up quite a bit of market share," said Hasan, owner of Payless Smokes, a convenience and tobacco shop in Topeka.
E-cigarettes now account for 15 percent of his sales, he said. Nationwide, e-cigarettes are booming, with annual sales projected to reach $1.7 billion by year's end.
The battery-operated devices — which vaporize liquid containing nicotine — have yet to be regulated by the federal government, though officials have pledged for two years now that they ultimately will be.
"That's why I've been calling the marketplace the wild, wild West," said Mitch Zeller, tobacco control chief at the federal Food and Drug Administration. "FDA has been on record since 2011 saying it intends to create a regulatory framework for electronic cigarettes. I can't tell you when that's going to happen, but we are getting closer and closer."
In the meantime, several states have banned sales of e-cigarettes to minors. In 2009, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger vetoed a bill that would have regulated all e-cigarette sales in the state.
The challenges of regulating e-cigarettes and other new tobacco products will be among the topics of a presentation Zeller is scheduled to give at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 19 at the Kansas Public Health Association annual meeting¬ in Wichita.
Future hinges on regulation
There's been little research done on e-cigarettes, but among those studying the devices is Dr. Greg Connolly, professor of public health at Harvard University.
The future of e-cigarettes, Connolly said, hinges on how the FDA approaches regulation of them.
"This could be a tool — if it's regulated correctly — to help end dependence on cigarettes and nicotine. This is probably the best quitting device known to man," said Connolly, who co-authored an early study on e-cigarettes.
They just as easily could become a means to hook more people on nicotine, he said.
"If the technology continues to develop ... they could become even more addictive than the conventional cigarette — that's frightening," Connolly said.
Connolly said this fall he plans to publish research on a set of habit-forming compounds — or "super juices" — that have been in conventional cigarettes like Merit and Marlboro since the late 1970s, and that he said are found in some popular e-cigarettes.
These super juices, which aren't present in nicotine gum or patches, could help make e-cigarettes a more effective quitting aid because they would deliver the kick of a regular cigarette, Connolly said. And like the patch, users could wean themselves off nicotine by stepping down the dosage.
But Connolly, who has served on FDA's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, said the agency does not seem poised to regulate e-cigarettes as a quitting aid. Rather, he said, FDA seems headed toward regulating them as tobacco products, which Connolly said would leave the companies free to market the highest allowable dosages and essentially assure an ongoing supply of addicts or customers.
"FDA seems to be poised to ban Internet sales, which is exactly what big tobacco companies want," Connolly said. "That will only destroy competition and hand the market over to (the big three companies) whose only mission is to make the most addictive product they can."
The three major companies are Lorillard, Philip Morris, and Reynolds American.
However, Zeller said allowing smokers to satisfy their nicotine cravings without inhaling tar and other toxic chemicals found in regular cigarette smoke could be an effective way to reduce the overall health risk.
"FDA is poised to create comprehensive nicotine regulatory policy that acknowledges and recognizes that there is a continuum of risk," Zeller said. "People are smoking for the nicotine, but they're dying from the tar. Nicotine is not a completely safe and benign compound, so don't get me wrong. But it's not the nicotine that's killing people."
The big three each have highly marketed e-cigarettes: "MarkTen" comes from Philip Morris, also the maker of Marlboro; "Blu" comes from Lorillard, also the maker of Newport; and the latest entrant is "Vuse" from Reynolds American, the maker of Camel.
Vuse, which is being test-marketed in Colorado, is a game changer in e-cigarette technology, Connolly said.
That's because it has a larger battery, which better aerosolizes the vapor, delivering it deeper into the lungs, and a microchip to regulate the dosage of nicotine, he said.
Connolly said if FDA does regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, he suspects tobacco companies will optimize the nicotine dosage such that e-cigarettes mostly likely will be used as a complement to smoking, not as an alternative.
Representatives of Reynolds American were not immediately available for comment.
"E-cigarettes have come a long way. I was among those who thought they would fail, but surprisingly they're catching on," Connolly said.
"The advertising sells them as the future. They're high tech, they're hip, like the latest Apple product," he said. "They make the Marlboro Man look like a homeless person."